Media Training

Holy War of Words

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

Jesuit High School Principal Paul Hogan picked a smart spot to respond to an Oregonian article that claimed Portland’s two largest Catholic high school football squads have become “artificial all-star teams.” Hogan's response illustrates when and how to respond to negative press.

Andrew Nemec, who describes himself as a “recruiting reporter” wrote: “Scan the rosters of both programs, and it’s startling jut how much talent has been sloshed off programs desperately in need of better athletes just to stay competitive.” He added “there’s nothing holy” about the so-called Holy War when Jesuit plays Central Catholic because “the rivalry is more artificially enhanced than baseball’s steroids era.”

Charges that Jesuit and Central Catholic poach players from other schools is hardly new. But Nemec took the charge to a new level by mentioning specific players and the high schools they would be playing for “if not for their departures to private schools.” While acknowledging private schools across the country have advantages, he singled out Jesuit as the top athletic program in the nation after winning state titles in football, girls volleyball, girls swimming, girls soccer, boys swimming, baseball, softball, boys tennis and girls track.

Interestingly, with all that talent, Jesuit is ranked second in Oregon’s big-school Class 6A football rankings. West Linn, a public high school, is number one. Nemec wrote that after losing to Jesuit in the 6A state final last year, West Linn added two all-state players from Wilsonville and a tight end from Tigard. “The arms race has begun to infect top public schools, too,” he concluded.

Hogan was among the commenters on Nemec’s article. He also shared his thoughts in a post titled "Fact Check" on the school's website. Noting his educational background as an English teacher and an editor, Hogan proceeded to shred Nemec’s thesis. The Oregonian reporter directed tweets to a handful of Jesuit football players, asking in what public high school boundary area they lived.

“In two cases, Mr. Nemec apparently did not know that the students he contacted had attended Catholic schools since preschool and had every intention of remaining in the parochial system for high school,” Hogan wrote. Another student mentioned in the article enrolled in Jesuit after his family moved to Oregon.

“Jesuit High School offers no scholarships or financial aid based on merit or talent,” Hogan said. The $2.85 million in annual financial aid is parceled out based on family financial status as determined by an out-of-state independent evaluator.

His biggest zinger was disputing Nemec’s claim that after Jesuit’s senior class suffered a winless freshman season, the school went on the recruiting trail to land the “state’s top talent.” Hogan said the current senior class is the largest in Jesuit’s history. Only three transfer students gained enrollment at Jesuit the year following the winless football season – and none were in-state football players.

Hogan cited Tim Massey, who was an assistant coach for the freshman team when the current Jesuit seniors lost all nine games of their season. “That 0-9 season, and its aftermath, is one of the most cherished memories in 33 years of coaching," Massey said. "Those guys could have given up or gotten down on themselves or simply found other things to do. Instead, they gutted out that season, hit the weight room and kept after it. And they got stronger and better.” As it turned out, a lot better. Several players have committed to play NCAA Division I football.

Hogan’s response was well played and provided a factual rebuttal to aspects of Nemec’s article. His comments won’t sway some people who dislike schools like Jesuit, but he pushed back against points that Nemec couldn’t substantiate so the online record is balanced.

He jabbed Nemec for failing to call him to check facts or get Jesuit’s side of the story, another key point to have on the record.

Responding to unfavorable stories requires strategy and savvy. The smartest place to push back is on factual errors or the lack of balance in a story. That’s what Hogan did. He was restrained and respectful, but firm. He also took the high road.

“If someone at The Oregonian wants a real story,” he said, “I suggest they write about the amazing, powerful ‘purple-out for CCA’ fundraiser that Central and Jesuit’s student body conducted at the big game last Friday night.” Then he invited to Nemec to join him at a student mass and “discover the true source of Jesuit High’s success.”

Media Training, Crisis and Self-Confidence

Media training is more than just learning the techniques of giving a great interview. It is about gaining the self-confidence to give a great interview.

Media training is more than just learning the techniques of giving a great interview. It is about gaining the self-confidence to give a great interview.

The value of media training isn’t in memorizing what to say in advance, but achieving the confidence to say what needs to be said in an actual crisis situation.

Media training includes tips on how to craft and deliver a key message in a media interview. Trainees learn about crisp phrasing and avoiding jargon. They see themselves on video so they can self-correct distracting mannerisms and weed out excessive “ums” and “likes” in their speech. They recognize the benefits of practicing instead of winging interviews.

However, the most profound value of media training is building self-confidence. The most common comment I receive after media training is, “Now I feel confident that I can do it."

Being a spokesperson is not rocket science, but it can be nerve-racking. The best words and clearest delivery can be undone by a shaky countenance or an inappropriate facial expression – failures usually attributable to a lack of confidence.

Being a spokesperson is like being an actor. No matter how marvelous the script and staging, what counts is your performance. And great performances usually flow from actors who have meticulously prepared and go on stage with the relaxed confidence to awe an audience.

Actors spend time in front of mirrors to master how they look and practice their lines so the words fall off their tongues naturally. Spokespersons should follow suit. Media training gives them the basics. Their self-confidence carries them to the higher plateau of success.

Self-confidence can easily migrate to over-confidence. One successful interview doesn’t guarantee another. A self-confident spokesperson remembers what gave them self-confidence, even up to and including follow-up media training. You can never be too well prepared.

A key part of self-confidence is being comfortable with your role, and spokesperson roles aren’t monolithic. Giving an interview to a print reporter can be very different than giving one live to a television reporter. Appearing on a news talk show or an online forum are very different experiences and require different kinds of preparation to build confidence.

The variability of spokesperson roles is a cue to seek customized media training that offers a realistic experience like the situation you will face. We have provided media training to public officials who routinely were subjected to ambush interviews, to high-profile business leaders who speak in a wide range of settings and to nonprofit  executives appearing on talk radio shows.

While the challenges vary, one thing is always the same – you want to leave a media training session with the confidence you can be the spokesperson who does the job.

To be honest, sometimes trainees realize after the experience that they can’t do the job. That’s important to know, too. It takes a lot of self-confidence to have the courage to say you aren’t the right person to be under the hot lights. 

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Tesla and Tips on Talking Like a Visionary

Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, is an indisputable visionary for his innovations, like the Model X electric crossover, shown here in its 2012 unveiling. But Musk is an effective speaker because he brings the future to the present, breaks big topics into small ones and loves to talk about doors.  (Photo Credit – Paul Sancya, The AP) 

Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, is an indisputable visionary for his innovations, like the Model X electric crossover, shown here in its 2012 unveiling. But Musk is an effective speaker because he brings the future to the present, breaks big topics into small ones and loves to talk about doors. (Photo Credit – Paul Sancya, The AP) 

Few people would dispute Elon Musk is a visionary. But when he talks about Tesla, “he always talks about what it’s like to drive in the car, what it’s like to look at the car and how the doors work.” His words paint pictures. His vision is cast in the present tense.

Elon Musk in a 2013 TED Talk on his innovative companies Tesla and SpaceX. 

Elon Musk in a 2013 TED Talk on his innovative companies Tesla and SpaceX. 

Noah Zandan, cofounder of Quantified Communications and a leading exponent of using big data and analytics to improve communications, says visionary leaders are surprisingly grounded in how they speak.

After assessing “hundreds of transcripts of visionary leaders,” Zandan came away with three surprising key takeaways:

  • “We thought visionaries would talk a lot about the future, but in fact they talked about the present.”
  • “We thought visionaries would really be complex thinkers, but in fact what they’re really concerned with is making things simple and breaking it down into steps.”
  • “We thought the visionaries would be really concerned with their own vision, but in fact they’re more concerned with getting their vision into the minds of their audience.”

In practical terms, Zandan says that means speech using a lot of “perceptual language, talking about look, touch and feel” that “brings the audience into the experience with you.”

Too much talk about the future, Zandan says, diminishes a speaker’s credibility with an audience. “People aren’t going to believe you as much.”

Noah Zandan speaking in February in Vancouver on how to speak like a visionary.

Noah Zandan speaking in February in Vancouver on how to speak like a visionary.

Great speakers have a knack or have learned how to draw an audience close to them when they begin and keep them absorbed during their talk. They rely heavily on real-time crowd feedback. Zandan’s techniques augment the native feel of speakers with hard data on audience reactions. That can be of great value to a speaker who has something important to say but isn’t as attuned to audience cues.

The takeaways Zandan extrapolates from his data and analytics are not surprising nor that much different from the advice of experienced speech coaches. The data reinforces the need to make speech tangible, accessible and understandable. Make a topic relatable and show the audience a path to your desired destination.

CFM offers customized media training workshops that put you in the hot seat and leave you better prepared to work with reporters. 

CFM offers customized media training workshops that put you in the hot seat and leave you better prepared to work with reporters. 

While data can improve the word choices speakers make, you can’t divorce speech from the speaker and how she or he looks, projects and sounds. Media training is a great example of showing speakers how they look, project and sound while giving an interview that is captured on video. Ticks, awkward gestures and contorted expressions suddenly stand out, almost drowning out the words spoken, when you see yourself on screen. That’s natural because what we see often sticks around in our brain longer than what we hear. And if what we see is discordant or uncoordinated with what we hear, we tend to dismiss what we hear.

Zandan admits there is more to great speech than data analysis. He underscores the importance of authenticity. “There is obviously authenticity to the way you deliver the message, and there are words that are considered authentic.…The data can lead you down a path of replication. We don’t want to do that because so much of what you communicate is your personality.”

Listening to Elon Musk fawn over Tesla’s doors is perfectly authentic. It makes us want to open and close them, too.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

A Crisis Response Do’s and Don’ts List

It helps to have a reminder of what to do and what not do when a crisis erupts. Living out your core values is one of the best ways to respond.

It helps to have a reminder of what to do and what not do when a crisis erupts. Living out your core values is one of the best ways to respond.

When a crisis hits, it pays to know what to do – and what not to do. So we’ve created a simple chart to serve as a guide for the Do’s and Don’ts of crisis response.

At the top of our list of “Do’s” is drawing on the core values of your organization to navigate your response. A crisis can be a calamity, but it also can be a crystallizing moment to show your organization’s true mettle, especially if you act out the values you profess.

Another key item on our Do’s list is empowering a crisis team leader to take command and be a focal point for assessing the situation, gathering verifiable facts and directing actions and communications. Preferably, organizations have developed crisis plans, which identify potential crisis scenarios and designate someone as the crisis team leader. This is not a role suited for on-the-job training or random selection. You want someone in charge who has prepared and knows how to proceed.

There is no generic crisis. Each one is unique and can affect an organization differently. That’s why our Do’s list includes an impact analysis and verifying key facts.

What isn’t unique to a particular crisis is the need to monitor traditional and digital media, inform staff and stakeholders and let your actions “do the talking.” Twitter has become the go-to social network for crisis communications, so it pays to get comfortable with it before crisis strikes. It also is important to make sure that crisis communications are outwardly focused, not just inward-looking. How does the crisis affect key constituents or customers and what are you doing to address the cause of the crisis and prevent it from recurring?

The Don’t list is equally important to keep in mind. Don’t dissemble, lie or try to shift blame – even if the crisis may not be your fault. A crisis isn’t a time for speculation or jokes. To the greatest extent possible, you need to talk, not deny. And don’t let the lawyer make all the decisions. Sometimes the court of public opinion is just as important as a courtroom.

The first minutes and hours after a crisis strikes – or you become aware of a crisis situation – are crucial. Our Do’s and Don’t list can be a valuable reminder in the chaos of what it takes to do the right thing, protect your reputation and live your core values. 

Gary Conkling is President and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Customize Your Crisis Plan with Risk Scenarios

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

A fast food restaurant, an industrial helicopter company and a nonprofit child welfare agency don’t share the same vulnerabilities, so why should they have the same crisis plan? They need unique crisis plans built around risk scenarios each might actually face.

A fast food restaurant should prepare for a food safety crisis response, not one involving a helicopter crash or child abuse. That sounds obvious, but in practice many organizations settle for a crisis plan based on a template they plucked up somewhere online. Scenario-based crisis plans may or may not look like the crisis plan templates you can find online. This is a case where function is more important than form.

There are common elements in crisis plans, such as up-to-date phone lists, a designated crisis team leader and protocols on how to field press calls. While not unimportant, those are not the defining characteristics of a savvy, effective crisis response.

Here are some of critical characteristics of scenario-based crisis plans that you won’t get from a template:

Conduct an Issue Audit

A scenario-based crisis plan begins with an issue audit where key staff members and stakeholders meet to identify the spectrum of vulnerabilities facing their organization. Candor is critical so you don’t leave off a sensitive issue everyone would prefer  to ignore. The issue audit should cover the waterfront of potential operational, financial, legal, competitive and reputational risks.

Assess Probability and Potential Consequence of Risks

After a range of risks have been identified, they need to be assessed to determine how likely each is to occur and, if it does occur, how seriously it could hurt the organization. This is what risk managers and insurers do, but many organizations don’t have anyone to manage risk or the wherewithal to insure against risk. The key deliverable from a risk assessment is to create a hierarchy of risks in which those with the highest likelihood to occur and the largest potential impact are put on top.

Measure Your Perception Gap

Conducting perception gap research is essential to understand reputational risks. You may think your reputation is spiffy, but stakeholders or customers may disagree. Knowing there is a perception gap and why that gap exists is valuable information that can inform crisis scenario planning and an actual crisis response. The cost of perception gap analysis can be spread because its findings are also worthwhile for organizational branding, management decision-making and employee training and recruitment.

Determine What Risks You Can Control

An often overlooked aspect of crisis preparation is crisis avoidance. Look at your list of potential risks and assess which ones have factors that you can control. Are there ways you can improve safety in your operation? Can you install more reliable safeguards for your processes? Is there a way to diversify your revenue stream? How can you differentiate yourself from competitors in a way that will build goodwill with customers? The answers to questions like these about your list of vulnerabilities should generate a management action plan that at once increases organizational viability and lessens or eliminates a potential crippling organizational vulnerability.

Write a Crisis Plan Based on Highest Risk Scenarios

Craft crisis scenarios that are likely to occur, could wreak the most damage and over which you have little control. You should add scenarios that you could eliminate or mediate, but haven’t. Each crisis scenario should anticipate how and by whom it might be triggered, which can a valuable guide on where to look for the cause of a crisis and what steps to take to address it.

Get Specific in Crisis-Scenario Responses

Because you have identified high-likelihood, high-impact risks, it makes sense to be as specific as possible on how to respond. Where will you go to get the facts and how will you vet them? Who needs to be alerted about the crisis? What resources will you call on to assist with your crisis response? How will you organize internally to address the crisis? Who will be your spokesperson? What process will you use to ensure timely, accurate and trust-building crisis updates? Is there useful background information you can prepare in advance to release to the public when a Crisis scenario occurs?

Include Crisis Plan Checklist

Don’t forget to add basics such as internal and external contact information, designating a crisis team leader and media training for spokespersons and key fact-finders. Fact-finders may not be the persons you want in front of reporters and TV cameras, but they will understand their role better if they have experienced the pressure of responding on deadline to harsh questioning.

Evaluate Whether Your Crisis Plan Aligns with Your Values

A crisis will only become an opportunity if an organization’s response aligns faithfully to its professed values. The most memorable crisis responses are ones that closely correspond to an organization’s values. Are the actions outlined in step with those values? Will you do everything expected based on your values? Can you point to specific responses that demonstrate your commitment to your values? 

Run a Crisis Plan Fire Drill

A crisis plan isn’t an abstract manual; it is a realistic how-to-guide. Your organization won’t be fully prepared until you test your crisis plan, find out our kinks exist and iron them out. The best way to do that is to conduct an organizational fire drill involving a high-risk, high-impact scenario.

Keep the Crisis Plan Fresh

Crisis plans don’t have unlimited shelf life. Build in a timeline to review the plan, asking questions about newly emerging crisis scenarios and whether your media-training spokespersons are still available. Make sure to update contact lists regularly. Think continuously about ways to prepare background information in advance that can be stored on a ghost website for when you need it. Visual explanations and videos take time to produce, so don’t wait until a crisis strikes to get into the director’s chair.

Follow these steps and you will be as ready as possible for a crisis that could affect your organization. A disciplined crisis planning process is beneficial even if a crisis scenario occurs out of the blue. Your organization will have developed the mentality and muscle tone to respond as a unit with speed, accuracy and commitment.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Manage Issues from the Front, Not Rear

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on  Blue Bloods , but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on Blue Bloods, but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

The best position in which to manage an issue is from the front, not the rear. If you are chasing an issue, chances are you won’t catch up before you go over the cliff.

This is a painful lesson that some organizations learn the hard way. For some, it takes more than one mistake to learn that it is smart to anticipate problems and take steps before problems become crises.

Easier said than done, to be sure. But it can be done.

Chipotle is a poster child for the point. The company ballyhooed fresh food from local sources. You don’t have to be rocket scientist to anticipate potential problems in food safety that could – and apparently did – lead to serious health outbreaks at more than one of the burrito chain’s outlets.

Jack in the Box learned its lesson from a 1993 E. coli outbreak that killed four children, infected 732 people and left 178 victims permanently injured with kidney and brain damage. The fast food chain, which owns the Qdoba Mexican Eats franchise that is a Chipotle competitor, installed food safety measures up and down its supply chain. Jack in the Box hasn’t experienced a major problem with food safety since then.

Qdoba promises “food for people who love food,” which isn’t as enticing as food made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Company execs decided a weaker tagline was better than sicker customers.

Issue management is not reserved just for customer-facing problems. It applies equally to issues with neighbors, constituents, stakeholders and employees.

The Southeast Portland glassmakers that used cadmium and arsenic in their processes could easily have anticipated air contamination, regardless of whether they were operating within the boundaries of their air permits. While the businesses showed good judgment by suspending the use of those chemicals once data emerged that there was a problem, they would have displayed greater judgment by insisting on regular independent testing so they could detect the problem earlier.

Some problems are obvious; some are not. That’s why we advise organizations to undertake issue audits. An issue audit is a no-holds-barred process to identify and vet all kinds of potential problems – legal, financial, technical, operational, environmental and competitive. The list of problems then should undergo an evaluation to determine the most probable risks and the ones with the most serious potential consequences.

That is invaluable, if sometimes inconvenient information.

The matrix of problems should be assessed by a risk/benefit test. The risk with the highest likelihood of serious consequence is where you start. If you determine, the cost to remediate the problem is far cheaper than the outfall of a crisis involving the problem, then it is a no-brainer decision to fix it. That’s a great way to get ahead of a problem.

Some problems may be too expensive or technically challenging to fix. You have to employ different tactics to stay ahead of their curve toward crisis. That might involve an open house or creation of an advisory committee. It could require meeting with affected people one-on-one. Such tactics take time, but it could be time better spent than facing a battery of TV cameras and angry questions.

In an era when everyone with a smartphone is the equivalent of an investigative reporter and social media moves at light speed, getting in front of an issue is more important than ever. Detective Danny Reagan may catch the bad guy on every episode of Blue Bloods, but don’t count on the same script when you are chasing a really bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Trump: Accomplished Ringmaster of the Communication Circus

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump can provoke and command attention, but his brand of communication may not work for everyone.

Donald Trump has turned the presidential race, political correctness and polite discourse on their head. So, is he exemplifying the traits of a good or bad communicator? That probably is a matter influenced by your political persuasion, but a fair analysis suggests he has both good and bad communication traits.

In what one voter called the “post-pragmatic” period in American history, Trump offers passion over policy. He insults instead of ingratiates. He emotes rather than explains.

The Donald’s mix of provocative statements, nonstop tweets and 24/7 media availability has managed to smother the campaign fires of his opponents. He calls a Fox News analyst a bimbo and gets more coverage than a candidate who unveils a 10-point plan on a vital issue.

Critics say Trump is playing on fears, inflaming biases and inciting anger. Supporters say he is merely channeling pent-up political reaction to government rigor mortis.

Regardless of whether Trump continues to fly high in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, there are some lessons to learn from how he campaigns. Writing for ragan.com, Clare Lane lists some of Trump's best takeaways:

•  He has a core message that he repeats over and over.

•  He taps into the emotional “truth” of his audience.

•  He speaks in language his audience understands.

•  He knows how to reframe questions and issues.

•  He is intentionally different than his opponents.

Trump tells big crowds at his rallies that he is running for president to “make America great again.” He has turned a tagline into a mantra, a phrase into a brand.

Perhaps ironically as a billionaire, Trump empathizes with people who feel downtrodden. He knows their hot buttons and he isn’t hesitant to push them.

It’s no accident that Trump has made racist and sexist remarks and dismissed political correctness as a liberal conspiracy. They are calculated comments to connect with deep-seated feelings and fears in the voters he seeks to attract.

Trump is a master at turning around questions. He pivots to make his points, without worrying whether he answers a question. Even when pressed, Trump shifts the topic.

From his cartoonish hair to his braggadocio behavior to his testy tweets, Trump is unparalleled. There is no one like him. In a field of dozens, being so distinctive has made him the center of attention, which he maintains by consistently “surprising” everyone. He even got a full news cycle’s worth of coverage for staying overnight once in Iowa instead of flying back to his New York penthouse.

If those are his good traits, what are his bad ones? It is pretty much the same list.

Trump barks his key message because he doesn’t have – or doesn’t want to share – many details of what he would do if elected president. Yes, we know he would tear up some executive orders, but how would he build that huge wall between the United States and Mexico, how would he deal with Chinese leaders, how would he increase the wages of average Americans? And what exactly about America’s past does he view as so great to warrant its revival?

Trump is long on passion, but short on persuasion. Sooner or later, when emotions cool, you want some real answers.

Speaking the language of those you seek to reach is critical, but not all-encompassing. Sometimes leadership requires speaking above the crowd, raising its sights. You can summon the “better angels” of ourselves with familiar phrases used in powerful ways.

People who conduct media training teach how to bridge from awkward questions back to key messages. Sometimes, however, the most provocative thing to do is actually answer that awkward question.

Being different is a good thing, but it isn’t the only thing. Building trust, showing emotional intelligence and displaying grace under pressure count, too.

There should be no argument that Trump is an accomplished ringmaster in the communication circus. What may seem like indulgence may, in fact, be a disciplined, if highly irregular, approach to gaining and retaining notice.

Consider Trump’s decision not to participate in the final GOP presidential debate before next week’s Iowa caucuses. Was it really meant to snub Megyn Kelly because of her questioning in an earlier debate? Or was it a shrewd maneuver to thwart the plans of his Republican rivals to gang up on him during the debate?

Like him or not, Trump is a study in how to communicate. Some good, some not so good. He definitely is not a loser, though, even if you view him as a lousy candidate.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling


The Profound Transition of the News

It isn't just the news business in transition. The switch to mobile devices is driving news content and delivery in new directions.

It isn't just the news business in transition. The switch to mobile devices is driving news content and delivery in new directions.

Everyone acknowledges the news business is undergoing a fundamental transition. That transition, however, may be more profound than we realize.

It is obvious print and electronic news media are moving rapidly to establish or enhance their online presence. Less obvious is the shift to delivering the news on mobile platforms such as smartphones.

Gone are the days when a large percentage of the population sat around the kitchen table in the morning reading the newspaper or coming home at night from work, putting on slippers and watching the nightly news on TV. Nowadays, people experience the news almost constantly on electronic devices. 

Instead of making a point of intersecting with daily news events, readers and viewers today are soaked with a persistent shower of news, which they tend to read in spurts.

News people talk about the reality of a 24/7 news cycle, with fluid deadlines and an imperative to publish first (and clean up later). That 24/7 news cycle is paralleled by a similar change in news consumption habits. People expect to find out what's happening – not just what happened – when they light up their phones and tablets.

The news has a shadow in the form of social media. News outlets use social media to promote their stories. But social media itself has become a barometer of what's trending, an indicator of what's collectively viewed as important, or at least interesting, in the moment.

While websites, especially news outlet websites, routinely feature multimedia content, social media sites increasingly enable one-click access to videos. It is another sign of the news reaching viewers without going through a news channel.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet reflected on these changes in an interview published over the weekend in the newspaper's "Sunday Review" section. The Times, he said, has divided its prodigious news resources into a "print hub," responsible for the newspaper, and a video team.

The video team's assignment, Banquet says, will be to identify and pursue stories that appeal to corporate advertisers. However astute that may be as a revenue-generating stream, it may overlook why viewers are fascinated with video.

Because video is no longer the hostage of expensive or unwieldy production equipment, almost anyone can shoot it and edit into a comprehensible story. The appeal of video is its authenticity. It puts the viewer on the scene to see for himself or herself.

More importantly, video works a lot better than a lot of words on the small displays of smartphones. You don't have to read about what's happening right now; you can see it and experience it in something closer to real time.

News outlets have tried to latch onto this real-time fascination by emphasizing "breaking news." Too often, however, that has become a path to covering fires, shootings and ice storms in lieu of more challenging stories about policy debates, community problems and disturbing trends.

The real power of video is to tell a story in a compact, emotive manner that holds strong appeal to a wide range of viewers. Videos are very versatile. As we've seen, they can show a police officer gunning down an unarmed man or they can make a complex story approachable and understandable.

As news producers race to catch up with news viewers, those of us who pitch stories on behalf of clients have to don running shoes, too. Pitching will still be a person-to-person activity, but what we pitch needs to change dramatically.

News releases prepared by public relations professionals have already become more sophisticated, with visual assets, infographics, B-roll video, charts and links. Now, we will need to go further.

With shrunken news staffs and heightened demand for video content, news outlets will be more open to accepting volunteered video content. This is a great opportunity to tell stories that otherwise would have little chance of ever seeing the light of day in traditional or new media. It also is a moment that requires building trust so we aren't pushing brand messages in the guise of news or distributing intentionally distorted, one-sided information.

The key takeaway is that how the news is distributed and read will have a strong bearing on what news is conveyed. The transition underway in the news media is causing a transition in what is viewed as news. Consumers of news, who now have an exploding number of options to get "news," will have to take more responsibility for the economic survival of the news channels they want and trust.

News influencers, including PR professionals, need to shoulder some of the same responsibility if we want trusted news channels to exist. 

Tags:    News, news coverage, news channels, social media, smartphones, news videos, story pitching, marketing PR, public affairs, Dean Baquet, CFM PR

Good Communications = Good Business

A recent Fortune 500 company survey says chief communications officers are gaining more access to C-suite decision-making. That's a good trend, but it's also an old trend that somehow got sidetracked.

A recent Fortune 500 company survey says chief communications officers are gaining more access to C-suite decision-making. That's a good trend, but it's also an old trend that somehow got sidetracked.

A recent corporate survey reflected a growing reliance in the C-Suite on chief communications officers. While this is encouraging, it is about time. Or, more accurately, about time again.

"These best-in-class corporate affairs officers shoulder a broadening scope of responsibilities and an increasing mandate to act as high-level strategic advisers to CEOs, and they frequently serve as members of the senior leadership team," according to a Korn Ferry Institute survey.

Good news, but the public relations profession in the United States began as senior advisers, usually reporting to the president of a company. Only over time did PR became a department that was shuttled down the hall. PR became a corporate function, not a source of valued advice.

In fact, heads of PR departments struggled to be in the room when key corporate decisions were made. Sometimes they were given directions, but never consulted on matters revolving around communications.

There may be many explanations for why the role of a senior communications officer has been resurrected and accorded more respect. Certainly one reason is the rise of online content marketing and the eclipse of traditional advertising. Customer engagement puts a higher premium on two-way communications, and brands can be negatively impacted by an ill-advised CEO tweet or an inappropriate or ill-timed post on Facebook by a staffer.

In a digital world where everyone with a laptop, tablet and smartphone is an editor, communication strategy and style plays a larger role in cultivating and maintaining a brand.

Internal communications is no longer just about a bland note from the CEO or pictures from the holiday party, but a forum for continuous improvement and an advance warning system of competitive trouble.

A communications crisis can happen any time, requiring companies to respond rapidly using tools like Twitter to provide real-time updates to the media, employees and impacted communities.

While companies certainly need hands on deck to pitch stories, write ads and engage on social media, they also need a voice or voices at the very top level to ensure corporate strategies reflect sound communication strategy. That's where senior PR counselors started and, hopefully, that's where they will return.

Embedding smart communications into an overall corporate strategy is good business. And it has been good business for a long time.

A White House Lesson on Choosing Words Wisely

In his condemnation of Donald Trump last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded us all that a slight misuse of a word in a press conference can create lots of confusion in the news. 

In his condemnation of Donald Trump last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded us all that a slight misuse of a word in a press conference can create lots of confusion in the news. 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest proved last week that a careless word in a press conference can ignite a media firestorm. 
 
Taking to the podium to condemn Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Earnest said: “The first thing a president does, when he or she takes the oath of office, is to swear an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And the simple fact is, that what Donald Trump said yesterday disqualifies him from serving as president.”
 
As the word “disqualifies” rapidly made its way across the web in headlines, sound bites and new memes about Trump, Earnest’s statement incidentally convinced many Americans that he actually had been booted out of the race. 

That afternoon, tweets paired with the hashtag #TrumpIsDisqualifiedParty soared to the top of Twitter’s list of trending topics. As a testament to how viral a tiny misstatement can become, in the week since, the hashtag has made millions of impressions on Twitter and some news organizations even doubled back with stories making it abundantly clear that Trump was not disqualified. 
 
The reaction to Earnest’s statement is an extreme example of some of the greatest challenges spokesmen face in dealing with the media. As the news industry relies more on controversial sound bites and the public takes less time to seek out the greater context beyond a headline or a tweet, it’s increasingly important to choose words carefully. 
 
It’s safe to assume Earnest meant to say that Trump’s idea makes him “unqualified” for the presidency. But to many, the point was lost in his phrasing and the ensuing coverage. 
 
White House: Donald Trump Muslim plan 'disqualifies' him from presidency,” a CNN headline read, perfectly encapsulating the common response across the media landscape.

Hard to blame the media for jumping on this. The blame rests with Earnest for being careless with what he said.

This should reinforce the need for scripting what you say before talking to the media, paying special attention to what not to say. It takes discipline for spokespeople to say what they need to say and no more.

Crafting a relevant key message and wrapping it into a quotable sound bite takes time, and it demands practice to pull it off.

Media training helps. But common sense helps, too. It doesn't take a degree in rocket science to recognize words, phrases or expressions that will create a headline. As an experienced communications professional, Earnest should have known better when he uttered the word "disqualified." Even "unqualified" would have been a headline-grabber. He, after all, is the White House press secretary, not a TV commentator.

Word choices can make a huge difference in conveying your point and not letting the story line – or a headline – get away from you. In a world of skimmer-readers, the headline is all they may see and ingest.

Put yourself in the shoes of a reporter. Would you overlook a showstopper line, regardless of whether the spokesperson meant to say it or not?
 
No matter how long an interview goes or how much you have to say before it’s done, reporters  look for just a few punchy quotes to inject into a story. Often a single quote defines the story, yet you never know which one a reporter will use. So, always choose your words wisely.
 

The Too-Much Answer

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

Eager spokespersons sometimes share too much information when answering questions, obscuring the key message they intended to highlight.

Spokespersons who turn into gushers when asked questions typically fail to know their mission, which is to deliver a message, not act like an encyclopedia.

Saying the right thing with just-enough language requires discipline. That usually comes from media training and experience. The kind of experience when your key message is omitted from a story and replaced by something less important, trivial or wrong.

Don't blame the reporter, who has to make sense of what you say and turn it into a short clip for TV or radio or a couple of quotes for a print or online article. If the reporter can't decipher your central point in your flurry of words, blame yourself for creating the confusion.

There is a fine line between a tight response and a terse response. A terse response can come across in the interview, and later on air, as evasive. A tight response, if delivered confidently and conversationally, can convey a sense of command by the spokesperson, increasing their believability. The only way most spokespersons gain that confidence is through practice. You need to now what you need to say and practice how to say it effectively.

Media trainers encourage chiseling key messages into sound bites. That may sound contrived, but the idea is to zero in on a message and the best way to express it. Not only will that help to ensure it is quoted, it will make the message more comprehensible.

In this regard, the spokesperson role is more like a playwright and an actor. You start with a goal, then think like a playwright how to present it – the words, the scenery, the staging. The actor's responsibility is to make the words come alive with his or her voice and body language.

Another critical aspect of media training is the art of bridging – how you take a question and turn it back to your key message. Instead of learning strong bridging phrases, some spokespersons think out loud and wander toward an answer, which may not be all that well thought out. The ill-considered answer too often is a launch pad for additional questions that pull the interview far away from your key point, maybe even into regions you sought to avoid.

Spokespersons are chosen because of their knowledge of a subject and/or their job title. However, their key message can be swamped by over-sharing or feeling they must get everything on the record. Digressions, windy explanations and technical jargon exasperate most reporters, at best, and confound them, at worst.

Transparency for a spokesperson involves telling the truth in a way that is meaningful and can be heard. Too much information is often the enemy of the truth. It buries what is important under the weight of interesting, but non-essential facts.

The best spokesperson is the one who knows what to say – and what not to say. The best spokesperson thinks about connecting with his or her audience through 12 seconds on air or two paragraphs in print.

The Seven Deadly Sins for PR Pros Working with the Media

Working with the press can be challenging for PR professionals, but following several key guidelines can make the job quite a bit easier.

Working with the press can be challenging for PR professionals, but following several key guidelines can make the job quite a bit easier.

When you sit behind a reporter's desk, you see the good, the bad and everything in between from public relations professionals. Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, here is some advice on how to take your best shot at smoothly working with reporters.

Think of these as the seven deadly sins of PR. Avoid committing them, and you should be just fine.

1 Not taking controversy seriously: Controversy drives the news business. No matter how small the issue, always, always, always take a serious approach in responding to a reporter’s questions about any potential problem.

A few years ago as a reporter for The Spokesman-Review, I exposed an embarrassing oversight in the search for a new chief for the city’s troubled police department. It turns out one of the four finalists for the job had fabricated his academic credentials, listing on his resume two degrees from a diploma mill in Louisiana that the FBI had busted several years earlier. The man dropped his candidacy the morning we broke the news.

But the story only became more embarrassing for the city when I inquired about how the situation arose in the first place. Spokane has a history of rooting out public officials with degrees from diploma mills. So, why hadn’t anyone caught the phony degrees before we’d gotten to that point?

The best explanation the city’s spokeswoman could offer: “These things happen.” The city hadn’t done a background check yet, and the whole thing was no big deal, she said. Well, it actually was a pretty big deal to the public and the media. 

That quote was fair game, so I ran with it in print. And so did one of our most popular columnists, who ridiculed the city’s response at length in the paper. He even went so far as to make and distribute pins sporting the quote.

All that embarrassment could have been avoided if the city had taken the situation more seriously. We’re all human, and it’s better to admit to a mistake than to diminish the legitimacy of a controversy.    

2 Incessant follow-ups: This happens all the time. A reporter doesn’t respond to your press release, so you send another email, and then a third. Finally, you’ve lost your patience and decide to call and ask if the reporter received the press release and what he plans to do with it.

One email will do just fine. If the reporter hasn’t contacted you for more information, he’s probably not interested in the story or he may just not have time to pursue it yet.

We live in a time of shrinking newsrooms. Keep that in mind, and remember that as staffs continue to dwindle, reporters have less time to respond to every email and phone call. That trend means there is an ever-increasing need to write more engaging press releases. 

3 Getting mad: Whatever you do, never lose your temper in an interview. Nothing will make you look worse on camera, and unless you and the reporter have already agreed to keep your conversation off the record, it could end up in a story.

Unfortunately, reporters sometimes ask insensitive or uninformed questions. Sometimes, they run a little too far with rumors or misinformation. And sometimes, they can be invasive or exploitative, especially in times of loss or personal crisis.

But when it comes to dealing with a reporter in a difficult situation, getting angry is the last thing you want to do. Take a breath, if necessary. Pause to collect yourself, and then carry on with the interview.   

4 Knowing nothing about the reporter, the organization or the coverage area: Every day, reporters receive numerous press releases sent out in email blasts to all sorts of news organizations. These become problematic when it’s clear that the sender knows nothing about the reporter or the coverage area.

“Dear _____:” Believe it or not, empty fill-in-the-blank press releases that start just like this make their way to reporters all the time. And there’s no faster way to turn a journalist off to your big announcement.

Before sending out a press release, take some time to get to know the receiver. What is the reporter’s name? What’s the coverage area? Would the news organization be interested in this? If so, how can you tailor it in a way that makes it more likely to get coverage? 

5 Burying the lead: If you’re wondering why you never got a call back about that press release you sent out a couple days ago, maybe this was your mistake.

Reporters have less and less time to spend on any given story in today’s fast-evolving newsroom. That also means they have less time to read press releases.

Stick to the basic rules of newswriting when reaching out to the media. Remember the inverted pyramid, the fundamental structure of a simple news story: the most important information should go at the top of your press release. As you wind down to the bottom of the page, your paragraphs should become less and less essential.

Place the heart of your message – the biggest news you have to announce – in the first paragraph of your press release. That way, you’re guaranteed to grab the reporter’s attention. 

6 Ignoring the media: Unfortunately, reporters won’t just disappear if you close your eyes and pretend they don’t exist. They keep calling or writing. And if you continue ignoring them, they’ll publish the most dreaded words imaginable: so and so declined to comment.

I can’t count how many times I’ve written that phrase, but it never reflected well on the people who decided not to say anything. When in doubt, almost any response is better than silence. Ignoring the media only makes the public suspect you have something to hide.

Instead, prepare a well-thought-out statement or simply agree to an interview. Planning ahead pays off, so try to anticipate what questions the reporter might ask and think about your responses beforehand. Try not to sound rehearsed, of course, but keep your main points in mind throughout the interview. 

7 Using jargon: Reporters tend not be experts in, well, just about anything. They specialize in distilling complex issues into simple explanations communicated to the masses. So, it’s best to avoid using industry-specific jargon in a press release.

Otherwise, you stand the risk of confusing a reporter. In that case, a reporter is likely to make an error in the story, which can be embarrassing for both journalists and PR pros alike. 

While a reporter might not let you proofread a story before it’s published, there is nothing wrong with asking to double check the facts first. It may sound pesky, but there’s nothing reporters hate more than having to write a correction to a story.  

Headlines Reinforce Crisis Response Reality

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

Fresh front-page headlines tell an old story – how you respond to crisis affects your reputation as much or more than the crisis itself.

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe was pressured to resign after his indifferent response to on-campus racial incidents, including snubbing a group of protestors who surrounded his car demanding an opportunity to talk face-to-face.

Chipotle faces a sharp business drop-off after the trendy burrito chain cavalierly responded to more than 40 of its customers in Oregon and Washington coming down with E. coli food poisoning. The company’s sluggish response to the crisis will put a dent in its "food with integrity" slogan that has attracted a loyal following, and it will give fuel to its critics who have mocked the restaurant’s high-calorie menu in the Chubby Chipotle campaign.

Then there’s GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, who has drawn rebukes from his Republican rivals and even more investigative intensity in the past week. Carson found himself under the microscope after complaining about excessive scrutiny following press reports that questioned the accuracy of his statements about a scholarship to West Point and a violent past as a teenager.

Looking overseas, the initial response by Egyptian and Russian officials to the downed Metrojet passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula in retrospect looks like an effort to avoid rocking the tourist boat. While the plea not to rush to judgment made sense, the quick dismissal of a terrorist act contradicted their own words. It took action by British Prime Minister David Cameron – who suspended British carrier flights to Sharm el-Sheikh – to bring to light the very real prospect of a bomb that brought down the plane. Now, the Russian government has suspended flights as it tries to find a way to bring home more than 25,000 Russian tourists.

In this situation, the Russians are displaying the same head-in-the-sand reaction to a damaging international report about state-sponsored doping by the country's track and field athletes.

If you are Russia, maybe you don't care what other people think. But for most of us, our reputation is our most valuable asset. Preserving that reputation in a crisis situation is a priority.

While no two situations are alike, there are universal crisis response fundamentals that apply to all of these situations. Chief among them is responding proactively by acknowledging the crisis and its repercussions, accepting responsibility and taking demonstrable action to address the cause of the crisis.

If Wolfe had acknowledged and denounced the inexcusable racial incidents that occurred on the University of Missouri campus, he would have placed himself on the same side as those who were deeply offended. In light of the racial tensions sparked by events in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, it is incredible that Wolfe could be so tone deaf.

Wolfe's resignation – spurred in part by the Missouri football team refusing to play this weekend – belatedly reflected empathy for the situation when he urged his departure to be the start of a healing process. Better late than never, but a proactive crisis response is always best.

When Too Much Is Too Little

Saying too much is the equivalent of saying too little. Your audience can easily miss your point under a mound of unnecessary words, facts and statistics.

Saying too much is the equivalent of saying too little. Your audience can easily miss your point under a mound of unnecessary words, facts and statistics.

When you give a 3-minute answer to a television reporter's question, you have said too much and too little at the same time.

It's a question of too much information burying your core, essential message.

If you give a reporter three minutes worth of verbiage, you allow the reporter to decide what's important. If you give a crisp, clear response, you leave no doubt what's important. You have given the TV reporter a gift – good air for a 12-second clip to weave into his or her story.

In the issues management space, there is too often a belief that a windy, fact-filled explanation will win the day. If people don't get it the first time through, then just keep feeding them more facts. This is the equivalent of talking louder when an audience seems deaf to what you are saying.

Length and volume are no substitutes for clarity and brevity. You can sneer at sound bites, but don't forget to use them. They work. Sound bites are built to be heard.

What do you need to say? What is the important message to convey? What is the best way to communicate that message? Answering these questions should lead to a simplified statement that makes your point.

There is a time and place for background, context and more detail. We call them fact sheets, special topic websites and explanatory video. Let them do the deep dive while you provide the sharp edge of what a topic means and why it is important.

Admittedly, there is a fine line between being too glib and too wordy. Sometimes glibness comes across as patronizing or dismissive. Caution needs to be taken to ensure sound bites inform, not insult.

However, your energy is better spent on trimming excess words and non-essential information so you focus on phrasing the key message so people hear and remember it. Saying less is much harder than adding a bullet point or citing another fact. Saying less does your audience a favor. They don't have to sift through mounds of material to figure out what you are really saying.

There is a reason they don't sell encyclopedias on the doorstep any more. People can go online to find out what need to know. When you speak, you need to concentrate on saying something worth hearing.

Media Training: Screen Tests for Spokespersons

Whether you are experienced or a novice, media training is a must for anyone who will give an interview that can influence a company, organizational or personal reputation.

Whether you are experienced or a novice, media training is a must for anyone who will give an interview that can influence a company, organizational or personal reputation.

Dealing with the news media is not a spectator sport. It takes discipline and practice not unlike an actor learning to play a part and deliver lines in character.

Actors don't show up on stage unprepared, and neither should spokespersons. Media training is a must.

For people with media backgrounds, with lots of actual experience or who have taken media training before, media training can be an invaluable refresher course. You can always perform better.

Media training tutorials can cover a wide landscape of communications realities and challenges. But effective media training sessions always include exercises that put your speaking and thinking-on-your-feet skills to the test. We call them stress tests.

We have found the most effective stress tests require trainees to identify what they need to say, develop a key message and refine that message into something approaching a sound bite. We ask trainees to anticipate issues and questions they will face in an interview – maybe even an ambush interview – with an aggressive print or broadcast media reporter.

The interviews are digitally recorded so trainees can see themselves perform. They usually are their own harshest critics, noticing distracting twitches, slouchy posture or roving eyes.

Our media training sessions preferably include two stress tests. That way trainees get a second chance to clean up mistakes they made in the first interview.

When time allows, we like to preface the stress tests with an exercise aimed at helping people find their own voice. This usually involves asking a trainee to compose a short story about a subject near and dear to their heart and then relate it orally without notes. This low-stress experience gives trainees a chance to concentrate on a power position and eye contact without having to think too much about tricky subject matter or questions hurled from left field.

The tutorial section of the training offers some background on the changing face of the news media, new technologies that have accelerated the pace of news cycles and reporting ethics and responsibilities. We also cover social media, including the emergence of Twitter as a terrific real-time way to update the news media, employees and key stakeholders in a crisis.

But the heart of the media training is the role-playing experience in front of a camera. A key first step is to overcome the aversion of practicing to perform. CEOs can be the worst. They typically became CEOs because of their abilities to speak well and think on their feet. But as former Disney CEO Michael Eisner proved with his comment about "beautiful women not being funny," you aren't as prepared as you think you are.

Success in front of the camera starts with careful preparation, often in a compressed time frame. Very few people are capable of matching a moment on the spot with the right comment and emotional empathy. It is why actors do their homework before they play a part. They have to assimilate their role and make the script their own.

The purpose of media training is to give spokespersons the perspective, the tools and the tips to write an effective key message and deliver it in perfect pitch.

Media training stress tests are like screen tests for actors. They show your potential and what you need to work on to play your part. 

If you are or may be a spokesperson, arm yourself with media training. It's a smarter option than winging it.

CFM provides customized media trainings for a wide variety of clients. Contact CFM today to learn more. 

Clickable News

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable, meaning reporters have an incentive to write stories that generate controversy and people will want to share.

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable, meaning reporters have an incentive to write stories that generate controversy and people will want to share.

Much has been said about the economics of publishing newspapers in the digital age. Less has been said about the effect of the digital age on the economics of covering the news.

The new priority centers on stories that are clickable. Reporters have an incentive to write stories that create online clicks as much or more than front-page bylines. Some stories and their associated video and links may attract substantial viewership online and yet never appear in print.

Some cynics will say that news departments have always looked for ways to sensationalize the news to "sell newspapers." In truth, reporters and editors are more motivated by presenting news that people will read, whether they subscribe or pick up the newspaper on a park bench.

Today's environment is subtly, but significantly different. Reporters and editors are looking for news that people will read – and talk about. The conversation can occur online through "shares" and retweets, as well as around the family kitchen table and whatever has replaced the workplace water cooler. That's really what clickable news is all about. It is news you want to share.

As a consequence, government process stories have been replaced by harder hitting pieces about questionable government activities or policies. The measurement of newsworthiness has shifted from "news of record" to news that can cascade.

Cascading news can be as benign as the viral spread of the Ice Bucket Challenge to the continuing investigative coverage of the influence-peddling scandal engulfing former Governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancé Cylvia Hayes. These are stories that just keep rolling.

Once a story starts to cascade, it will attract more attention – and more reporters. A story at flood stage will have reporters digging to find new story angles to add to the swell.

The clickable news environment makes news-gathering techniques such as the ambush interview and siege stakeouts more mainstream. It also makes it harder to stop a story once it begins to cascade. It raises the stakes on crisis response.

Online connectivity is the floodplain for cascading stories. Online connectivity means you can share a story or your thoughts about a story with an entire community, not just with a few buddies over coffee.

Clickable news is here to stay, at least until the next big thing unfolds. You don't have to like all its implications, but it pays to learn how to cope with and conquer them. Media training provides a great opportunity to prepare and prep for the current reporting environment.

The Ambush Interview

In a media-rich environment, the ambush interview has become more common as a way to surprise a news source into talking about an uncomfortable subject in an uncomfortable setting.

In a media-rich environment, the ambush interview has become more common as a way to surprise a news source into talking about an uncomfortable subject in an uncomfortable setting.

You agree to an interview, but when the reporter shows up, he suddenly switches to a surprise and controversial topic. You have been ambushed.

You also can be ambushed when a reporter and a cameraman jump you en route to a meeting, asking uncomfortable questions in an equally uncomfortable setting.

The ambush interview is a newsgathering technique reporters employ to get a scoop. They may have new, explosive information or a hunch they will encounter reticence in a news source.

Like any ambush, the ambush interview can be painful. Like any communication crisis, the ambush interview can be a moment of truth where you can shine.

The nature of ambushes makes them hard to anticipate. But corporate leaders, spokespeople, political figures and public agency directors would be wise to prepare. Here are a few tips:

  • Avoid appearing defensive. Don't stomp off from the interview. An iPhone picture of your back can look like a guilty verdict. Take command, face your interviewer and say you aren't prepared to talk about the subject. Turn the tables and invite them to come back later when you are ready.
  • Be aware of ambush points. You may not anticipate when an ambush might occur, but you can anticipate the kind of material that might lead to an ambush. Identify those issues and have a prepared answer in your pocket if you are ambushed. Even a short answer is better than no answer or fumbling for an answer. If you can't provide an answer, clearly state why.
  • Remain calm. Your demeanor is probably the strongest message you can deliver. If you stay calm, you tell the reporter, "I can handle your pressure." Keeping calm provides space for you to negotiate – rescheduling an interview, moving the interview to a more appropriate setting or offering some context on the issue.
  • Don't get sucker-punched. If you successfully defend yourself in hand-to-hand combat with the reporter, don't let him sucker punch you with "Well then, let's talk off the record." This is just another, close-range ambush. A simple response: "Let's talk when I'm prepared" or "Let's talk when the facts are in" is a graceful exit from the reporter's trap.

Maintaining good media relations habits is one way to avert ambush interviews. Return calls from reporters so they don't feel the need to ambush you. Establish rapport with the reporters that routinely cover your company, nonprofit or agency, so you have a reservoir of trust. Be straight with reporters. Be willing to talk about the good and the bad, so you build credibility.

The digital age has made virtually anyone a "reporter." While the ambush interview is a challenge, the ambush by someone with a smartphone who records what you thought was a private moment poses a much greater challenge.

If you are someone with any degree of public profile, the best advice is to believe you are in a perpetual ambush zone. Don't let down your guard. Be prudent and thoughtful in what you say and do. Don't be surprised by an ambush.

The Power of 1 Voice: Everyone Is a Spokesperson

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

[This article originally appeared in the March edition of PR Tactics]

On Thanksgiving evening, I watched shoppers hold their smartphones high above their heads as others jostled, pushed and complained. While someone was recording them, cashiers good-naturedly answered questions about their stress levels. They were also sympathetic with those shoppers who were frustrated that some early bargains were already sold out.

Once uploaded to YouTube, people might largely ignore that content, or it could easily appear on “Good Morning America” the next day. How plausible is that? A survey of professional journalists by Arketi Group found that 91 percent of journalists say they use the Web to search for news sources and story ideas, and 34 percent admit to spending their time online watching YouTube.

If the content is interesting enough, then someone will pick it up. In my experience, it first emerges in a community discussion on Reddit, where readers pick it apart from every conceivable angle. Then The Smoking Gun or BuzzFeed gets wind of it, helping it go viral. In hours, days or sometimes months, traditional journalists see it pop up in their news feeds, prompting another wave of attention. 

In an era in which everybody spends their time gathering and disseminating information to their respective spheres of influence, everybody who those quasi-journalists come into contact with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

While it is common for organizations to have policies prohibiting personnel from speaking with the media, how can they enforce these policies when every word could end up on Twitter, Facebook or someone’s blog? What guidance can they give someone who is snapping pictures or shooting video on company property, or a customer who is thrusting a smartphone in their face while asking questions?

Every employee can benefit from guidance and training in an organization’s messages and delivery techniques. The CEO probably knows more than others, but 100 or 1,000 employee voices have the potential for an even greater impact – positive and negative.

Sticking to command and control communications policies that attempt to funnel all communications to approved spokespeople is counterproductive. Consider the power of people throughout the organization welcoming the chance to tell a consistent story that taps into their passion. Then consider the risk of those same employees who are left to flounder in an environment in which they are under constant scrutiny.

Interacting with storytellers

This all became clear to me several years ago when I helped an oil and gas exploration company pursue shale plays throughout the United States. In Texas, people were enthusiastic about extracting oil and gas by fracturing – or fracking – the shale thousands of feet below the surface, but people in areas such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio were suspicious.

Out front of this effort were the “landmen,” the corps tasked with securing contracts with landowners. In a series of training sessions designed to help educate landowners, build trust and diffuse anger, we heard early warnings of how smartphones were changing everything. The landmen described landowners holding their smartphones up and recording their interactions – some were well informed and some were aggressively unfriendly. 

What had been a messaging and education training session evolved into something that closely resembled a media training session. If everyone – including the community that we were seeking to influence – was a journalist with the ability to reach a worldwide audience quickly, then all of our frontline people should be trained to interact with those storytellers.

With practice, many of the same techniques that are effective in managing interactions with professional journalists can be equally effective with citizen journalists. Here are five tips for all employees to keep in mind:

  • Prepare for the unexpected. Unlike most interactions with professional journalists, which are planned and scheduled, interactions with citizen journalists can come at any time. This means that organizations should keep the lines of communication open with people throughout the organization who interact with the public. If you are not providing them the information or context they need, then you are setting them up to look foolish, and you will look foolish, too.
  • Define what you want out of these interactions. It comes down to three questions: What do you want your community to know? What do you want them to believe? What do you want them to do as a result of the interaction? Left untrained, employees may not think that the person recording them with a smartphone presents an opportunity to build awareness or encourage positive feelings. Establish objectives and you will realize that it is infinitely easier to achieve positive outcomes.
  • Practice three-dimensional storytelling. Typically, message guidance from organizations is long on claims and short on personality, which reinforces negative perceptions that many companies are self-centered. Change that by working with your community of spokespeople to make your messages personal. First, whittle down your messages to three or four ideas that are central to what your organization is all about. Next, come up with proof points – data that makes those messages bulletproof. Finally, challenge spokespeople to come up with anecdotes, experiences and observations that make the messages tangible, human and authentic.
  • Think beyond messages. If a person is thrown into a tense situation, then it is only natural that their facial expression, posture and tone of voice will reveal feelings of anxiety and stress. Good luck with having people perceive your information positively in that situation, as negative non-verbal and voice cues will trump the meaning of what you’re saying. Through role play – preferably recorded and played back – your employees can see how they interact and can practice maintaining an optimistic overall disposition, even in chaotic situations.
  • Use bridging techniques responsibly. With some practice, spokespeople throughout the organization can grasp the idea that they can manage interactions by bridging to the ideas they want to emphasize. The potential downside of this technique is that it can seem evasive and manipulative if people ignore the questions. We recommend spokespeople always acknowledge the question and briefly respond in 10 seconds or less, then bridge.

Most organizations have a few trained spokespeople ready to interact with the media. When journalists call, they can funnel the questions to the approved spokesperson. Few organizations disseminate these skills broadly so that every public-facing person knows how to handle challenging questions with the expectation that any interaction could be recorded for a worldwide audience.

This loosening of the command and control approach to the role of spokesperson is the next step in our profession’s evolution. Organizations that adapt and train frontline personnel will multiply the impact of their communications. 

Which is louder: the voice of one spokesperson or the combined voices of all your employees?

Being Prepared for the Q/A

Question and answer sessions are opportunities to earn trust, but for executives who wing their answers, they can be Bermuda Triangles.

Question and answer sessions are opportunities to earn trust, but for executives who wing their answers, they can be Bermuda Triangles.

Too many CEOs and senior executives turn into wingmen when they approach question and answer sessions. They wing their answers and go down in flames, along with an opportunity to build trust. 

It takes a great deal of self-confidence to manage an organization, regardless of its size. But self-confidence isn't enough to prepare for a Q/A session with a key audience, especially an audience with an attitude and some tough questions. The only way to be ready for Q/A is to prepare – a lot.

Smart executives go to great pains to prepare for Q/A sessions. They make sure they are grilled with the toughest and widest range of questions and get help on framing solid, effective responses.

Depending on the significance of the Q/A, practice sessions can last for a day or more. Some executives may say they don't have that much time to devote to preparation. They fail to realize they could be spending a whole lot more time on damage control if they bomb in their Q/A performance.

Here are the most frequent problems: 

1. Caught off guard by a question.

The question may come from left field, but so what. Left field is still in the ballpark. Good prep work will identify even the most outlandish questions, so you have thought about them and have an answer at the ready.

 2. Don't have the information readily at hand.

If you are stumped by a question, it is better to admit it than try to bungle through an answer. However, if a question is fairly obvious – say, it's about the safety features of a proposed facility, the audience will expect you to have an answer. Failing to answer is tantamount to appearing evasive or, worse, uninformed. The people who prep you should have the license to remind you what you should know, which is usually why you are the one standing up giving the answers at a Q/A. 

3. Give inarticulate or incomprehensible answers.

Answering a question effectively includes giving an answer the audience can understand. Muddled facts, cloudy descriptions or cryptic references don't cut it. The purpose of an answer to a question is to satisfy the person who asked the question. Your answer may not always make them pleased, but it should never leave them confused. That's why you practice polishing your answers in a prep session.

4. Don't tell the truth.

Believing your own opinions can be dangerous when you are speaking into a microphone to a crowd of people. They don't hold many Q/A sessions in country clubs, so executives need to prepare for a different kind of social engagement. The best advice is to tell the truth – and to make sure of your facts when you prepare for the Q/A. 

5. Striking a patronizing tone.

When you know a lot and the audience may be a lot less informed, the temptation arises to give patronizing answers to questions. Unfortunately, audiences have the collective ability to topple you off your smarty-pants pedestal. Good preparation involves converting complex information or nuanced points into clear language.

6. Coming across as untrustworthy.

Just like any good speaker, you need to build rapport and trust with your audience. In a Q/A, that often involves bridging into your answer with some kind of empathetic comment. It can be as simple as "That's a great question" to "You raise a very discerning point." Framing answers in human terms helps to establish rapport because you demonstrate you have taken the time to think about the issue in more than a rote way. Thoughtful answers breed trust, even if they don't always generate agreement.